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L.A. port is hatching a revitalization

Alex Weil’s football-sized invention ranks high on the improbability scale: a filter that cleans an engine’s oil so long that after three years of testing on 17 Idaho tour buses, financed by the Energy Department, the filters were still going strong.

“When I tell people how long my oil processors last, they just don’t believe me,” Weil said. “They just give me a blank stare.”

Luckily for Weil, the filter didn’t sound too good to be true to PortTechLA, a relatively new business incubator operated by a coalition that includes the port and city of Los Angeles.

In June, Weil moved his start-up, Marine Oil Technology, from Sweden to the incubator’s San Pedro office, where he hopes to begin large-scale production of the long-life oil filter.

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On Wednesday, PortTechLA is hosting a kind of technology beauty pageant at its inaugural Technology Expo and Investment Conference. About 20 technology entrepreneurs will showcase their products before potential maritime industry customers and business bankrollers.

The event has drawn interest from such well-known start-up investors as the Tech Coast Angels, the Pasadena Angels, the California Venture Forum, the Maverick Angels and the Los Angeles Venture Assn.

Some of the entrepreneurs may find a home at the incubator, which provides assistance with development, testing, commercialization, manufacture and marketing, said Jeffrey C. Milanette, the nonprofit’s executive director.

“A typical company will start out with three to five employees and then grow to 10 to 15 by the time they leave the program,” said Milanette, a business start-up expert and graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. “If you’re able to graduate about 10 companies per year, the jobs really start to add up.”

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There is a lot riding on the venture, with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa saying that PortTechLA “is poised to become an important element in our overall plan to bring green jobs and sustainable economic growth to Los Angeles.”

The inspiration comes from longtime port neighbors such as Herb Zimmer, owner of a decidedly low-tech San Pedro print shop.

Zimmer said that the harbor area has watched its huge fishing and cannery industry disappear, along with a naval port and shipyard and repair work. When the recession hit the cargo industry, Zimmer decided to push forward with a plan he hatched in 2007.

Zimmer, who is chairman of PortTechLA, wrote a report called “Future San Pedro.” It envisioned a revitalized local community built around a number of businesses that made products designed to reduce pollution and fossil fuel dependence at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and reduce their effect on the health of people who live nearby.

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“Someone has to come up with the technologies and systems to overcome these hurdles,” Zimmer said. “So why shouldn’t it be us?”

For 31 years, his shop, PriorityOne Printing, has focused on such jobs as fall football schedules for local high schools and the list of college acceptances for Mary Star of the Sea High School’s graduating class.

PortTechLA is a “public/private nonprofit technology commercialization center and incubator operated by a coalition of the city of Los Angeles, Port of Los Angeles and the San Pedro and Wilmington Chambers of Commerce,” according to its mission statement.

Both ports work together on a separate Technology Assistance Program that has provided seed money for the testing and development of new technologies, including a hybrid diesel-electric tugboat manufactured by Foss Maritime Co. in Seattle.

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But PortTechLA will be different. As an incubator, it will house companies at offices somewhere in the port area and help them build their workforce by arranging training and bringing entrepreneurs together with potential investors and customers. Financial support isn’t yet possible because of constraints on the incubator’s small $2-million annual budget.

Establishing an incubator is unusual for a seaport, said Tracy Kitts, vice president and chief operating officer for the National Business Incubation Assn. The Athens, Ohio, group has about 1,900 members in the U.S. and 59 foreign nations.

“They aren’t the first, but there are not a lot of other seaports involved in this sort of thing,” Kitts said.

So far, PortTechLA is in a modest startup phase of its own, with a small office in San Pedro and a few desks and telephone lines available for rent.

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It’s still searching for 12,000 to 15,000 square feet of office and industrial space that could house the initial 10 to 15 companies. Milanette said he hopes to move the operation into a new home by the end of the year.

For Weil and his oil processor, the change of scenery has been worthwhile.

The product uses specially designed cotton filters that catch particles as small as 1 micron and includes a heater that removes liquids that can build up in the oil.

Weil made his first sale this week of 60 oil processors to operators of the TraPac cargo container terminal at the Los Angeles port.

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“So far,” Weil said, “I am already getting a lot of support.”

ron.white@latimes.com


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